By Ruth McCambridge
Who speaks for the nonprofit sector?
Nonprofits are an independent lot by nature. Many are small, local and often-times single-issue-focused.
Is it reasonable to expect them to have a collective national agenda?
The nearly 400 people who attended the first national meeting of the “Nonprofit Congress” on October 16 and 17 think so.
This convocation in Washington, D.C., was long overdue in that it purposefully brought together in dialogue the small-to-mid-size and often excruciatingly-local groups that make up the largest proportion of nonprofits in the U.S.
The 380 delegates who attended represented 47 states and the District of Columbia, and included civic endeavors from theaters to hunger projects and residential treatment centers, although there may have been some over-representation of intermediaries and the room was overwhelmingly white.
It was fitting that the National Council of Nonprofit Associations took the lead in making this occur since these smaller nonprofits are the constituents of the state associations which, in turn, are the association’s base.
This stands in contrast to the larger and more monied constituents of other nonprofit infrastructure groups such as Independent Sector and the various foundation trade associations.
To establish its agenda and legitimacy, the congress began properly with a series of 117 “town hall” meetings across the country. Hawaii alone hosted 11.
The nonprofits that attended produced a list of six potential priorities for delegates to vote on.
The priorities drawn from the meetings included such issues as “nonprofit organizational effectiveness” on the one hand, and “social change” on the other.
This, as one delegate to the national meeting commented, was “apples and oranges. We had to try to quickly jump over big ideological and linguistic gaps.
It made the dialogue very difficult but delegates took the challenge on with energy. They whittled the priority list down to three on day one.
The first two priorities: “organizational effectiveness” and “public awareness and support” – were not what one would call elements of inspirational call to arms.
The last was “advocacy and grassroots community activity,” which, if embraced, could re-introduce this sector to the base and practice of its potential power and effectiveness.
An interesting intersection of the three priorities, however, could be found in the plenary talk of Jody Williams, founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Its effectiveness, she stated, was in a simple strategy of maximum engagement of the organization’s constituents and supporters.
The initiative, which still maintains limited central staff, always operated on principles of information-sharing with constituents and partners, a commonly developed goal and plan, and the shared implementation of that plan, resulting in the international treaty banning landmines.
All of this was based on respect for the power and responsibility of each engaged individual to contribute to the goal.
Williams’ description of the organizational base for this was most vivid when she talked about standing for hours at the fax machine every morning to ensure that everyone knew what everyone else was doing.
The second day of the Congress was spent in developing action agendas and in the energetic closing plenary: Each state alphabetically – from Alabama to Wisconsin – was called on to pick one of their plans and announce it to the entire group.
Not unlike a national party convention of 100 years ago, groups of delegates boisterously introduced themselves as representatives from “the Palmetto State” and the “Empire State” and shouted out one of the elements of their action plan.
Some stood on chairs, some started with a song, and many were humorous and emphatic.
More than at any point during the congress, these public commitments demonstrated the great geographic diversity, high aspirations and potential for joint action.
But this nation has witnessed many boisterous national conventions and only a few succeed in sparking a groundswell of change – although many result in additional institutions.
Let’s keep that International Campaign to Ban Landmines network in mind.
For the Nonprofit Congress and its nearly 400 delegates, the task will now be how to translate high spirits and cross-state camaraderie into a fluid but dynamic platform for a revitalized democracy.
To do a good job of this, however, it will have to reach out yet further to include more representation from marginalized groups.
Co-convenors Audrey Alvarado and Robert Egger concluded the two-day event by challenging the delegates to return to their states and carry out their commitments, and to be prepared to report on their results when the Nonprofit Congress reconvenes in spring 2008.
Ruth McCambridge is editor-in-chief of The Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston.